No Longer Alone

by NoLongerSober

Chapter 35 - Remember

When Tail regained consciousness the following morning in the cozy confines of her liberty-blue sleeping bag, she felt surprisingly refreshed. The cool, dawn air that lingered in the forest made her ears and muzzle tingle, but she had been built for altitude. This sensation wasn’t so much a challenge—but a call that spoke directly to her roots.

She and Barrier had spent yesterday’s remaining daylight traversing the nearly forty kilometers between Mt. Canterhorn and Nipersneigh Lake, which marked the head of the Trottingham Trail. With her eyes still closed, Tail released a pleased hum at the thought. Before the start of her training, such a march would have been out of the question. Doing so comfortably? Well, that would have formed a chapter in a fantasy fanfiction.

“Mm,” she purred, rolling in Barrier’s direction. “Should we get a move on?” 

No answer came. Groaning to break the silence, the pegasus slipped a foreleg out of her sleeping bag and reached for where she presumed Barrier to be, but instead of finding any sign of a stallion, Tail’s limb thumped against nothing more than dirt and grass. 

Suddenly wide awake, Tail sat up and scanned her surroundings. Her pack was gone. Barrier was gone. Her rations were gone. In fact, the only things around that stood out against nature’s backdrop were a canteen of water and a bound scroll. Shuffling her way out of her plush cocoon, the scientist scrambled over the ground, snatched the parchment, and eagerly unravelled the message. 

Dearest Blanket, it read. In my time, this course was far more dangerous than it is today. Violent bandits, as part of their sentences, would roam the hills and ridges of the trail. Some were spared by cadets, but the vast majority were not. Some of those condemned tried to turn the tables by killing inexperienced rookies before the officers of the watch tendered swift ends. Times have changed, and the practice fell out of favor long before my return. It was brutal, but you should make no mistake. The Trottingham Trail is still a battleground, and you have to survive it.

While the dangers you face on this trail are not the same as the ones I faced, the danger we will inevitably oppose together is quite real and quite deadly. Therefore, I have another challenge for you. I am your bandit. I’ve taken your food. I’ve taken your supplies. I’ve taken your lifeline. Maybe this notebook of yours contains vital Equestrian intelligence, and you need to retrieve it all before I sell it off to an enemy of the state. Follow the trail, be mindful of clues as to where I may have moved off the path, and use all of your skills.

Equosetutum purslane and quackgrass both grow in the area during this time of year, so if you need to restock your food supplies before you reclaim your gear, those would be your best options. Just remember, always assume that I have eyes on my prey.

After rerolling the scroll, Tail stood up. She dumped the parchment into the interior of her sleeping bag before folding the puffy fabric so she could easily carry the bundle on her back. The pegasus snagged her canteen as well and hooked its tan burlap strap around her neck.

“You’re going to be my bandit, huh?” Tail muttered under her breath. Her sights shifted over the terrain again before they settled on the winding dirt path that sloped down towards the lakeshore. Between the trees’ towering trunks, she could see the gentle waves on Nipersneigh Lake along with the sparkling cosmos that the sun created by playing with the water’s surface.

Always assume that I have eyes on my prey. Barrier’s concluding statement corralled the mare’s calculations, and it drove her feathers to restlessly flick. Why call anything prey unless you plan to attack, Magic Bear? Instruct me to use all my skills? I know that you’re up to something, but you’ll also know that I know.

The mare’s half-spread wingspan steadied, and she produced a suite of nearly undetectable current loops under her primaries and over her haunches. You’ve forced me to find my own sustenance by taking my pack. If I were a bandit, I think I’d swoop in when my target was foraging, especially if they were distracted from possible flight triggers. So, Tail, what are we going to do to catch our thieving criminal?

Tail trotted nearly fifteen kilometers without any sign of Barrier or her gear. Over the span of three hours, she had passed several small Nipersneigh beaches and began ascending the slowly curving trail into the foothills. Birds chirped in the distance, and Tail would occasionally hear the light rustling of foliage. Every now and again, a critter would scamper through her field of view, but, for the most part, she was alone—and hot damn, did it suck.

And then, there’s you, the flier commented to herself as her stomach growled and churned. Back in grad school, you could go half the day without a problem. Then again, how far away is Canterlot by now? I’m still exerting energy even though I’m just trotting. I’m probably not being very fair to you, annoyed stomach. Tail released a long, exasperated sigh. She needed to go on the hunt. 

About halfway up the hill, the tree growth began to give way to an open field filled with purslane. The sea of flat, rounded leaves swayed with the wind as a breeze dared to kiss the ground. Reaching skyward like children yearning for their parents to scoop them up, the plants’ yellow flowers reciprocated the affection and danced. 

Near the high end of the clearing, a galleted flint tower stood about 150 meters from Tail’s present position by the edge of the forest. The small keep captivated the scientist’s attention, for it appeared to the pegasus as though a pocket of pre-Canterlot history had been miraculously preserved in the middle of nowhere. Of course, Princess Celestia had mentioned that she had designated the area a national landmark.

For a moment, Tail wished to spend some time praising the pony who looked after the site, but other details in the scenery overrode that notion. A sign of life came from one of the slit windows in the stone structure when Tail swore she saw the light of a lamp’s flame. Her head snapped down, casting her gaze to her forehooves before she meticulously scoured the path. While the ground closest to her limbs did not seem disturbed, interesting features appeared in the dirt the closer Tail’s scan got to the purslane.

Heavy divots carved into the sloping terrain. Almost like somepony trudged through here with armor and two packs. The tracks wandered from the well-travelled route and disappeared into the overwhelming mass of succulents. Still, Tail found more subtle clues, such as broken stems and jarred leaves, that told her something had recently moved into the field on a vector that pointed at the fortification.

Tail fashioned a devilish grin. Giving a physicist hours of solitude to engineer a plan was the scientific equivalent of giving a colt permission to start a bonfire—especially so when said physicist would have much rather spent that time trekking with her bandit. 

Stage One— Tail poured a little more charge into the current loops that she had maintained around her body. They each responded by glowing at a higher brightness, which would make them visible to Barrier without arousing too much suspicion. At least, that’s what she hoped. A good thirty minutes’ worth of ruminations had also been dedicated to factoring in the impacts of a ring reposition. This decision carried the biggest risk. Barrier had been at the yard with her for every session since she applied the technique, so a major shift in location felt like a bad move. However, she wanted to make her rear look like a more inviting target, so she pushed the sensors hovering over her haunches a teeny bit forward. 

Stage Two, plant the garden— Tail emerged from the trees and knelt down to take a bite out of a purslane leaf. Like a crisp cucumber, the piece of foliage crunched in her mouth and deposited its nutritional benefits through a unique peppery kick with a lemony twist. The pegasus kept her sights homed in on the tower, but she hugged the tree line as she swayed to the right. Beneath the purslane sprawl, Tail deposited current loop after current loop. She cut back to the left while she closed the distance to the keep, eventually creating a snake-like structure of detector elements as she repeated the winding maneuvers. 

Stage Three, recalculate— The odds of a frontal assault are low. The keep appearing active is likely a ploy. Teleporting in from above or below? Possible options, but low probability. Vibrant rings should make magical means less appealing once the high gain is considered. Factoring in the coverage of the flanks and the dangers Barrier saw from me kicking Shining Armor in the face, 130 to 160 degrees and 200 to 230 degrees would form the optimal windows for a spellless approach. 

By the time Tail had progressed another fifty meters towards the tower, she had hit her cap on the maximum number of sustained rings. Nevertheless, the weeks of honing her weathercrafting skills had dramatically improved the mare’s limits—both in terms of amplitude and stamina. As a result of all that training, she had gone from barely being able to maintain a few current loops to being able to maintain a triangular array of nearly eighty. 

Spaced roughly four meters apart, the concealed swirls of electric charge connected to her namesake through primed vapor threads. Tail expected that, with her defenses raised, Barrier would go the stealthy route. The problem for him rested with the array. No matter how much Barrier avoided casting, or how much he repressed his aura, Wing’s mathematical expressions gave Tail a lifeline. Barrier’s inherent magic would still produce a response in her network.

Letting the stragglers die off as she continued her march, Tail kept the total number of active rings constant as new ones spun to life in the eddies produced by her stride. She had progressed another twenty meters when the first ping hit the tactical detector, and Tail fought to keep her pacing even to not alert her target. 

220 degrees, intercept course. Tail momentarily kept a grin at bay as she continued to calmly walk. Her brain, however, frantically crunched the data and counted down the disappearing distance between Barrier and herself. By the time that number hit two, she couldn’t contain the smirk any longer. Her counterattack commenced the instant Tail smacked her swishing namesake against Barrier’s uncovered muzzle. 

Rapidly turning around, Tail found him surprisingly unarmored and actually surprised—at least if the gaping stare was a decent indicator. Her sleeping bag flew from her withers and tumbled atop the purslane while her canteen lagged behind the jerking motion until it found refuge under a wing. Tail’s irides radiated a determined blaze as the flier made good use of her momentum. She replanted her hind legs, sprang towards the stallion, and rammed her shoulder against his chest. The foreleg on her opposite side jumped into the action as well. She swiftly raised the limb and covered his eyes with her cannon before she pushed up on the base of Barrier’s horn and wrestled the contorting stallion to the ground. 

Tail huffed and pressed her nose against his throat while her mass came to settle atop his frame. She nipped him once a predatory growl emerged from the pride-infused pegasus. “If this were a duel,” she quipped, “I’d tie you up and fuck you right now.”

Barrier shuddered in response, and his hind leg twitched. “Feisty Blanket sounds very feisty,” he managed to gasp after regaining his wits, “but are you planning on keeping me like this? Or are you going to show me how you pulled that one off?”

Scooting forward, Tail planted a kiss on his muzzle before she teased the stallion. “I don’t know. Having an apprehended bandit squirm beneath me while I steal his sight and exert some leverage on his horn is pretty damn appealing. Though, maybe I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and let you decide, Magic Bear. Since you rummaged through my gear, you can choose one thing to teleport to me: my caffeine or my rope?” 

Tail’s inked quill scurried across the page of her journal as she finished penning her entry for Day 144. A blade of quackgrass dangled from her muzzle, and Tail lazily chomped on it before her gaze slid to Barrier. She smiled when she discovered that he had already been staring at her from his post atop his black sleeping bag, and she quickly added a punctuating statement to her log about how she rather enjoyed the blue color of his eyes.

The pair had covered 250 kilometers in their eight days of travel, and while most of those nights had been spent under the stars, the couple had gained the luxury of occupying another watchtower at this particular stage of the journey. 

“You’re taking quite a liking to that grass, Blanket. Maybe I’ll have to convince Trot to put it into some recipes at the diner.”

“What I would give for one of his culinary creations right now,” she answered dreamily after closing her notebook. Placing it beside her pack, Tail continued to observe her coltfriend. 

Illuminated lanterns, dangling from the ceiling on short chains, cast soft shadows while the flames played with their iron hosts in the drafty lodging. Diffused, darkened X’s wavered across the mostly empty space, and the slowly oscillating bands raked back and forth over Barrier’s countenance.

Tail recognized the awkward grin that he returned. A lopsided affair, that particular expression bore the burdens of reflection. “But you weren’t just looking at me because I was mindlessly nomming on quackgrass, were you?” 

“Heh,” Barrier breathed in the wake of Tail’s blunt delivery. “No, I can’t say that I was. It’s been a long time since I was last on this trail, and a lot of things are the same”—he reached out and rubbed the worn, uneven oak flooring—“but a lot of things are new. Don’t really have to worry about deranged criminals nowadays, and the company is a different sort of enjoyable. Mm, it’s just nice to have you here while I remember those who were with me before.” 

The pegasus quickly finished off the blade as she watched his ears droop. Behind those words, his uncomfortable smile morphed into a grimace that made Tail want to jump off her sleeping bag so she could wrap him up in the tightest hug he had ever experienced—

“How many ponies even know this path exists, let alone know it was a training ground?” the unicorn carried on. “I mentioned it during your B.C.T. how ponies today don’t get war and conflict. In many ways, I’m glad. It means times have been peaceful, but it also means that ponies don’t remember what was endured. They don’t think about all those battles we covered. They don’t think about the sacrifices, and they don’t remember the ones who answered the call. Some of those ponies were my friends. They were my responsibility, and outside Celestia and Luna, I’m the only one who remembers.” 

Gradually standing before Barrier vocalized his current chain of thoughts, Tail shuffled her way to the stallion and made good on her silent promise. She draped herself over his back, rested her chin atop his mane, squeezed his sides with her wings, and slipped her forelegs around his chest. “You can tell me about them, if you’d like.” 

“Damn, you’re adorable,” he muttered, tangibly relaxing beneath the blanketing Blanket. He crossed his fetlocks and rested his muzzle atop the makeshift pillow. For a moment, Barrier remained quiet. His eyelids descended as his muscles kept loosening in Tail’s embrace, and in that claimed tranquil state, he finally proceeded. 

“You already know a little bit about Ember. We never actually ran this trail together, which is kind of funny since she was from Trottingham. She got wrangled into my unit pretty early into the war with Griffonia. Her feistiness caught Captain Sombra’s eye, and he wanted to see the benefits of pairing her raw, abrasive fighting style with my coverage abilities. Griffons loved bows, and she loved getting through those volleys and pounding the shit out of them. 

“But all that viciousness came from her love for us. When she was a rookie, half her squad got wiped out near Griffonstone. It changed her sense of loyalty in a way we used to joke about. We looked at her like a mother hen, ironically. If she thought we needed to retreat, she’d swear at me until I couldn’t hear. If she knew there was no other way, there’d be a fire in her eyes that I thought was unique—until I met you.”

Tail’s wings flicked in response to the declaration, which drew a brief pause from the story-telling stallion. “Sorry,” came the mare’s whisper, “didn’t mean to stop you.” 

“‘S fine. Besides, I kind of walked into that one with some sudden flattery. It’s also true. When you defended my honor against Bonecrusher, the spark was the same. If you saw her fight, I think you’d understand. Stars, did she push for us. Celly once gave us a mission to infiltrate a warlord’s castle. It didn’t go well. We killed the lord, but the job wasn’t stealthy. Getting captured wasn’t an option, and teleporting wasn’t always an option either. Leaving your squadmates behind, for example, was considered a disgraceful act. Instead, unicorns… often had the job of incinerating their own squads if capture became inevitable.

“Ember made sure I never had to do it. That night, she clawed, blazing a path all the way to the border. I’ll never shake the look on her face when we got everypony across the river. She had a few cuts on her head and blood was trickling into her fur, but the love in her stare was something. Let’s just say we didn’t need a duel for that one.”

A reserved smile tugged on the corners of Tail’s lips as she gently rubbed Barrier’s sides with her wingtips. “Sometimes a duel isn’t needed,” she commented in a soft-spoken voice. 

“True, though our recent engagements have led me to admit that they’re fun. Just don’t tell Cady,” Barrier replied before he lazily flicked his tail. “You and Ember, I believe, would have gotten along well. Both quick with the wit and unable to learn the concept of quitting. Come to think of it, you would have also probably enjoyed talking with Silver Dust too. He served as my lieutenant for almost the entirety of the war, and I did meet him on this trail.

“That pegasus could do things with snow like you do with lightning, and when he got serious, his golden eyes conveyed such focus. He was a measured stallion in a way that kind of reminds me of Indar. The officers here knew he’d make a fine lieutenant right at the start. He cared about his squadmates, and he’d attack tasks with plans that minimized casualty risks while still getting the job done.”

Pausing again, Barrier loosed a drawn-out yawn. “Mm, you’re being super effective. Might not get through ‘em all at this rate. Though, in a way, you’re already a little familiar with River Styx. I used his likeness during your final exam. He was a good stallion too, albeit a little more carefree than most of us. Liked to wear his mane up in this unusual ponytail. I did not mimic that bit, but he was decent when it came to silent teleportation. He also had the habit of being notoriously quick on the kill.

“With him around, I always knew I had an ace I could play that would be speedy. He was a great lifesaver.” Another yawn escaped the stallion’s muzzle. “They all were, honestly. I just wish more ponies could remember them.” 

Tail finished arranging some smooth, hoof-sized stones around the rim of a small fire pit that Barrier had dug with his magic. She had already located some dry brush and sticks, which she had set in the center of the bowl. Swiveling her head to survey the river-side site, the scientist confirmed that she had placed their packs, and Barrier’s armor, at safe distances from the to-be-created flames and the riverbank. When her captain returned from the wooded interior with some bigger logs floating in his blue aura, Tail turned her focus back to the kindling and lit it with a sparking burst of her weathercraft. 

“Five-hundred kilometers down, two-fifty to go,” Barrier commented, plopping down at Tail’s side while his sights remained trained on the burning kindling. “What day is it now in your T.S.S.B. calendar system?” 

“One-fifty-one,” Tail answered through a chortle, “and I’ve been working on some great things in that journal, Magic Bear. You just can’t see all of them yet.”

Barrier pressed a forehoof to his chest and huffed in mock offense. “Didn’t we agree some time ago to not keep secrets from one another anymore? I thought that was the deal. Here I’ve been giving you all these details about my past, and you’re keeping the lid on great things? I’m shocked.”

“Hmm, well, there is one that I’m holding onto for the end of the trip, but”—Tail wrinkled her snoot before giving a shrug—“you do raise a good point. You’ve been telling me a lot about your past. Maybe I should fill in some more details of my own. Anything in particular suit your fancy, Magic Bear, or should I just ramble?”

Placing one of the logs atop the building fire, Barrier groaned. “This might come off as being overly forward, but subtracting the thousand years, we’re pretty close to the same age. Certainly, a pretty, smart pegasus had to have had previous relationships. Anything there, or anything from them you’d like to avoid?”

“Oh boy,” Tail answered. A frown laid siege to her face, and a tremor ruffled her feathers. However, when the physicist noticed that Barrier met her display with a concerned stare, she quickly waved her foreleg. “No, no, it’s a fair question. Just the memories there kind of suck. High school is when ponies today tend to start dating, but a lot of that usually gets chalked up to toying around. Sure, there are some exceptions, but for me, I didn’t even develop an interest in dating at all until I went off to college.

“I had two serious relationships during that time. The first one didn’t last too long. We had a lot of overlapping creative interests, but the guy started pursuing another mare—”

“What an idiot,” Barrier quipped, drawing a humored grunt from Tail.

“Eh, we ended up being friends in the end, which is more than I can say about my last serious relationship. I dated this guy through undergrad and into grad school. There was a real time investment there. After years being together, I thought I had something special with him, but things got weird once Las Pegasus appeared on the radar. He couldn’t deal with my success, and he couldn’t hang with my friends. But somehow, someway, I was supposed to bend to his every request and every ambition. I could live my life so long as it matched his view of what it should be.

“One night, he”—her timbre abruptly developed an embellished, sarcastic drawl—“bequeathed the opportunity for me to express my mounting grievances. I tried to smooth things over, but when I told him that I loved him still, that I cared about him still, he just looked at me and told me that he needed to process that. That was enough for me to hear. I proceeded to tell him that I thought he had already made up his mind to move on and just didn’t have the courage to say it to my face. That was the last time we spoke. Heh, in the end, for the best, but it’s still the type of thing that can really fuck with the insecurity of a girl, you know?”

Tail’s splayed wings relaxed once Barrier wrapped his nearest forelimb around her withers. “I can imagine that’s the type of wound that takes time to heal. I can only hope that you’re not too worried about something like that happening between us.”

Flopping against Barrier’s sturdy frame, Tail sighed, “Mm, no, that’s not something I really see happening between us. I think we’re a bit beyond the years for those types of games, and seeing as how you went from being a grumbling captain to a sweet Magic Bear, yeah, just don’t see it. That’s not to say there aren’t sources of insecurity. We haven’t really talked about what happens after all this.

“My sabbatical isn’t going to last forever. At some point, I’m going to have to go back to Las Pegasus. Is that something that will bother you? How does it affect us in the long term? I mean”—the tempo of Tail’s cadence increased—“I wouldn’t want to pull you away from Canterlot, but teaching’s also my thing. I can’t bail on my students, and maybe I should have thought about it sooner. Then I didn’t, and now we’re almost at the end of this training—”

Barrier gently squeezed the flier before her ears perked to the sound of his deep voice. “I’m not that attached to Canterlot. Celestia gave me my place out of guilt, and Cady and Shining kept me moving—if you can even call it that. Either way, even if I was attached to the city, I wouldn’t have reciprocated your declaration of love—I wouldn’t have told you I love you—if I wasn’t willing to put in the effort.” 

Suddenly, Tail wondered if the heat that she felt on her cheeks stemmed from the bonfire or Barrier’s brand of kindness. She instinctively leaned into him further and affectionately nuzzled the side of his neck. “I love you too, Barrier.” 

Three weeks after their departure from Canterlot, Tail and Barrier emerged from the lingering morning fog and looked upon their destination. The rolling hills that had accompanied the couple on most of their journey gradually morphed into less pronounced valleys that channeled the Longe River and its associated tributaries towards the ocean. 

In the distance, a blanket of haze hovered over the still bay, and old brick towers rose through the mist as though their pointed caps stretched towards the light of the sun. To Tail, the parts of Trottingham that she could see looked precisely as they had during her last visit to the area. Once upon a time, the then-student had attended a conference held off the charming city’s central square, and it didn’t take much of an effort for her to come to adore the Hoofover architectural style. 

“It’s bigger,” Barrier quietly stated, adjusting the position of his saddlepack as his armor rattled. “Unsurprising, given the thousand years, but yeah, I’d say a lot has changed.” 

Faced with the contrasting viewpoint, Tail nodded after she hummed in contemplation. “I’d imagine it’s probably weird for you to see a place you’ve been before not look the same. Canterlot didn’t even exist during the time of Nightmare Moon, right? I know I was astounded the first time I saw it, but for both of us, it was a fresh experience.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely weird,” Barrier replied in a muted tone. He pitched his muzzle towards Tail and met the pegasus’s gaze with an uneasy expression that tweaked a muscle beneath one of his icy-blue eyes. “Canterlot was overwhelming the first time I saw it, but I had no emotional ties to the city. During the old era, the only thing there was a small fortress that provided logistics support, so my difficulties largely centered on the cultural shifts and the noise. Every now and again, I still forget pink is considered a feminine color these days.

“Trottingham, though? When I was here last, it was maybe a tenth the size. We would have no chance of seeing any notable buildings from here. Honestly, we’d probably still be surrounded by a few squads coming off the course—or headed onto it. Wasn’t uncommon to find a few tents pitched around these parts either.” Barrier’s voice trailed off once his focus returned to the trail. For a moment, he stood in silence and peered out over the descending, winding road. “Heh, Silver would probably give me some quip about adaptability and bitch at me for keeping Ember waiting.”

Tail nosed closer to the unicorn. She lifted one of her wings and gently brushed his mane with a few feathers. “I don’t think the quip really matters now, Sweety. My mom always says grieving is your own process. No one can truly tell you where or when you’ve got to make the move. You don’t even have to grasp the full process. You’ve just got to be ready enough to take the next step.”

“Your mom sounds wise. Is that where you got your smarts from?” Accompanied by a subtle smile, a crack began to appear in Barrier’s solemn demeanor.

“Communication skills? Yes. Math skills? Tartarus no. You also missed out on her whole conflict-resolution phase.” Tail snickered before she adopted a silky, flower-child tone. “‘Now, Tail, Hunny, we should use the word “and” more when we express our grievances instead of “but.” For example, when your father keeps trying to scoop the last drop of melted ice cream out of his bowl, instead of saying, “Dear, I know you like ice cream, but that clanking noise is driving me insane,” I should try, “Dear, I know you love your ice cream, and I would appreciate it if you could enjoy it a little more quietly.” See?’”

“Faust above, does she still do that?” Barrier asked, blinking as he recoiled his head against Tail’s stroking feathers. 

“Thankfully not. That shit died once Sincy started touring. I think the house becoming an empty nest loosened her up a lot when it came to exploring the cosmic energies. Kind of ironic honestly, but parents will be parents.”

Stretching a hind leg, the stallion snorted. “Leave it to a random story to lift my spirits. I’ve been keeping Ember waiting long enough. Trottinghamians had some pretty weird superstitions when it came to their dead, so the cemetery actually isn’t that far from here. It’s time to take the next step.”

Through twenty minutes of walking towards the city, the path underwent two noteworthy transformations. The first occurred when Tail noticed the increasing presence of gravel mixed in the dirt, and the second came when the gravel was replaced by a narrow stone road. There, a sizable drystane wall, capped with wedge-shaped rocks, rose from the soil and followed the lane for a kilometer. 

At the midpoint of this stretch, two pillars of enormous, octagonally cut sandstone formed the entrance to the cemetery. The faces that showed to the street bore deeply etched glyphs similar to the ones in the princesses’ library, which Tail would have probably paid more attention to if Barrier had not marched across the threshold as though he were on a mission. 

Of course, Tail knew that, in many senses, he was, so she quietly kept pace at his side as they meandered past worn, moss-covered grave markers in search of Section 15. Tail kept busy scouring for any indicators of what section they were in, and every now and then, she would spot tiny granite obelisks that she presumed were signs. Unfortunately, time had made most of the numerical markings unrecognizable, leaving the duo to wander the humid, hallowed premises on intuition alone.

Jerking when Barrier’s heavy pack suddenly thudded against the grassy ground, Tail spun to face the stallion. He had stopped in front of one of the more impressive monuments in the cemetery. The limestone mausoleum carried a subtle golden hue, and its squared columns supported a decorated archway that bore a glimmering ruby in its keystone. 

No door separated the ponies from the darkened recesses of the crypt, and upon inspection, Tail didn’t notice any inscription that identified the occupants of the plot. Leaning, she craned her neck and curiously peered at Barrier, whose fixated stare remained locked on the gem. 

“It’s magically infused,” he spoke in a hushed whisper before a small spark jumped from the tip of his horn and disappeared into the ruby. 

Out of the shadows of the mausoleum’s interior, an auguric shimmer emerged and swirled beneath the arch. Both Barrier and Tail gasped when the figure of a grinning yellow-cream pegasus took shape. Strands of her burnt-orange mane flowed downward, and she flicked her head to knock a renegade lock away from her amber eyes. 

“I wonder how many buckin’ years it took ya, Barrier,” Ember spoke while the stallion gaped and quivered in response to the spectacle. “Knowing ya, prolly more than a couple, eh? Oi,”—Ember’s muzzle turned to the side as she called to someone neither Barrier nor Tail could see—“how many bits should I wager on three, Radiant?”

The mare huffed, faced forward, and continued to speak at a marginally reduced volume. “I know I’m supposed ta be serious, but it’s not easy, ya know? Okay, Barrier, Dearie, it’s been two years since ya got sealed away with that thing Princess Luna became. Celestia’s convinced that one day it’ll be made right, but, as ya already know, that time is after our time. We won’t be there ta support ya, at least not like we could now, and trust me when I say that we miss ya more than I can say here.

“Even your pa was hit in a way that, well, ya’d prolly shit your kit if ya saw. Proud”—Ember curtly nodded as her voice cracked—“real proud, and real sorrow. Course, we both know that, under that grumpy piss act of yours, you’re a caring stallion who needs love and needs ta know that he’s still loved. It took me some time ta come ta grips with the fact that you’re gone, and a part of me never will, but I can make sure of one thing. When ya do come back, and ya walk the earth again, ya won’t do it alone.”

Flapping her wings, Ember reared up and twisted her body to reach out past the field of view. When she settled back into the frame, she carried a young light-purple unicorn colt between her forelegs. His mane had a striking resemblance to Barrier’s, and his eyes captured a particular shade of blue that Tail knew quite well.

“Radiant and I decided, once my service was over, that I would join his herd. It’s not the same kind of love, and as sweet as he is ta me and the others, I doubt there’ll be a day when I don’t think of ya. But this li’l ball of magical joy is our son. His name is Ardent Sparkle, and if your brother and I have anything ta say about it, when ya get back, you’ll find nothing but love in the family we’ve left behind for ya.”

Barrier gulped when Radiant Spell stepped beside Ember and Ardent. The older purple unicorn fashioned a bittersweet smile as he peered into the inevitable time capsule. “I will do the best I can to treat her right, Sir Barrier. You have made our family proud, and indeed, you are missed more than you know.”

Tears streaked down Barrier’s muzzle as he watched his brother shed the same. Tail drifted closer to her coltfriend in the wake of the declaration, and she carefully slipped free of her saddlepack before offering some comfort. 

“Sir Barrier?” Scowling, Ember glanced at Radiant. She started balancing on her hind legs and covered Ardent’s ears with her wings. “What kinda twat shit is that? We want ‘im ta live his life, not think he’s standin’ in some bloody, borin’ ass cour—”

The projection rapidly flickered until a new scene stabilized around the lone Radiant Spell. “Seems as though I’m in some trouble now. Eh, Brother, I just want you to know that I’ll always be at your side. You are loved, Magic, and you always will be. I don’t know when you’ll see this, but I hope that you’ll have happiness again by the time that you do. Our house will endure the darkness to see its lost son in the light.”

Lowering his head once the image dissolved, Barrier let more tears freely fall. Tail pressed against his frame as he quietly sobbed. “Shining, Twilight, they’re hers. They’re hers, and they always have been.”

“Oi!” Ember’s voice echoed through the graveyard, causing Barrier’s head to snap up and Tail’s body to shiver. A much older mare greeted the pair this time around. With her hair long greyed, the yellow-cream pegasus looked elderly in years as she comfortably sprawled atop a bed. “I ain’t done yet. Keep the youngins out ‘til I’m ready, and don’t ya give me that look, Ardent Sparkle. I gave ya your name. I can damn well swear in front of ya if I want ta.

“Are ya still there, Barrier? As ya can see, I’m a wee bit older now. Your brother’s already gone ta the great beyond. Bonnie bless his soul. I think I ain’t got much time left for this here world myself, and I imagine we’ll both be in Trottingham together soon enough. Now, I’ve learnt quite a lot in my time, and after watchin’ my kids grow, fall in love, and have families of their own, I can think of a reason why ya’d come. I can also figure that Celestia might’ve told ya about our dear old Captain Sombra by now. Personally, I’d put my fuckin’ bits on both, so who is she?”

The mare’s brow quirked, and her sights briefly drifted skyward as if she fell into a deep contemplation. “Hmm, she’s prolly there with ya now. Ain’t ya, Lassie? Well, if he brought ya ta see me, then there ain’t a shadow in the world that can cast doubt on that trust. I’m counting on ya ta tell ‘im what he needs to hear, and if ya ‘ave gone and made me look like a fool, Barrier, then I’ll kick your fuckin’ arse. The next time ya see me, ya better have stories to tell about the life ya lived and about the love ya found.

“I kept my bargain with Radiant Spell. We fulfilled our pact ta set the next generations right. If they keep growing, then my love has already touched ya from beyond. But, there’s another promise I made ta myself, and there’s a deal I made with a different matriarch. I said I learnt a lot, and I meant what I said.”

Tail’s coat bristled as she internally swore that Ember’s piercing, determined stare met her own.

“We find what we need in those shadows, and I’ve found that my dreams can be powerful things. What comes when such magic can stretch across the past and the future, eh? Keep living your life, Barrier. Keep your soul open ta what your heart is tellin’ ya. Know that ya were always remembered, and know that ya ‘ave always been loved. Alright Ardent, get ‘em all in here now.”

With glued gazes, Barrier and Tail watched as pony after pony, young and old, filed into the room and gathered around the bed. The angle of the shot widened, revealing that most of the chamber was actually filled with ponies. An aged Ardent Sparkle waved from the fringes while Ember started to laugh.

“Four bloody generations, Dearie. Let’s give great ol’ Uncle Barrier the hello he deserves, eh?” The youngest fillies and colts sprang at the opportunity to make noise before the others followed suit. After a few seconds, the commotion died down, leaving a smugly grinning Ember in its wake. “Remember us too, my loved captain.”

Barrier planted his forehead into Tail’s shoulder after the image evaporated. He held the pose, and the lavender pegasus could feel the pressure that pushed his eyes closed. “Not sure I was ready for that,” he mumbled before he started slinking down to the grass, “but I’m glad I saw it all anyway.”

Tell him what he needs to hear, Ember’s words echoed in Tail’s mind as she lowered her head to delicately brush against Barrier’s mane. After a few nuzzles, she leaned away from the sniffling stallion and snatched her saddlepack. Her journal was in her grasp a moment later, and with careful motions, Tail ripped a page from its confines. She settled herself on the ground beside the unicorn, and she felt a strangely familiar tingle weave its way through her coat while she steadied her nerves.

“Remember Them,” she read aloud. “We often think of those who came before as giants, those who form the cores of great tales and legends, those who can be described with bold words like hero and savior. Heroes are given that name because they protected us. They fought for us. They sacrificed for us. They also loved us, cared for us, nurtured us, gave birth to us, and watched us grow. Some grew up with us too. Some built friendships with us, and—to sometimes untrained ears—taught us more about ourselves than even we could know.

“We often remember them as titles. We should remember them as ponies—wonderful, joyous souls that gave us love, so we could love others.”